Spiritual, but not religious? (revised again)

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A common refrain heard today from those reluctant to succumb entirely to secularism and atheism, and intent on keeping a door open to transcendence, but who are still wary of corrupt and calcified religious institutions, is: “I am a spiritual person, but not religious.” When queried on the content of their spirituality – one can hardly make the claim without an approximate frame of conviction – they will reply with some version of the following. 1) I believe in “some higher force” – call it God if you like; 2) we are all somehow one in the final analysis, and I wish to stay in tune with this oneness – call it love if you like; 3) I have found proven ways to commune with the higher force – call it prayer or meditation if you like; 4) all religions are, on close analysis, basically the same, and the spirituality I have found constitutes their inner reality; the rest is just window-dressing. In short, these spiritual seekers quite reasonably conclude that once you’ve bared the banana, you might as well throw away the peel. And this does sound very convincing on the face of it.

We witness a wide spectrum of variations on this today, from the simplest, personal option of steering clear of organized religion and fostering one’s own private spirituality (with open-ended tenets of belief, and reluctance to discuss its details or preach it from the rooftops – “it’s private,” after all), to publicly trumpeted universalist claims. We find many a teacher who will claim they have isolated the perennial revelation and mystical minimum of it all, chopped their way through the overgrowth and found the hidden garden of truth. They may welcome those of any or no faith to participate in week-end retreats and workshops – or to read the books that vehicle the message – and thus gain their own access to some variety of extrasensory or preternatural experience. All this is usually packaged in techniques borrowed from various traditions (usually Eastern), or made to order by unlikely collaborations between ancient practices and modern neuroscience.

The buffet on offer is quite extensive, but the usual inner message is the same: the isolation of the essential and the marginalization and relativization of the secondary. Some gurus may even recommend adherence to an outer religious tradition of one sort or the other, but almost always as a mere cultural adjunct (one “skillful means” among others, called upaya in the Buddhist tradition); what is important is that the underlying essence be grasped, and that all religious institutions and forms be seen as ancillary and ultimately dispensable.

Again, this sounds plausible enough. But there are problems. First, I will ask if this scheme of things proves operative in other important areas of life and culture. And if not, why should religion be different? I mean, does this scheme of essence and adjunct serve as a functional norm elsewhere in our experience? Let us look at some examples. First, our body. What do I absolutely need in order to live and survive? Actually, head and trunk pretty much suffice, and even the eyes and ears are not strictly speaking imperative for the organism to work. Limbs and higher senses can be dispensed with and a living, breathing body will be left behind. Even those in a coma are still alive. And although such cases exist and we do our best to help them cope and continue to value their human dignity, no one will pretend that it is desirable to, so to speak, “get down to essentials” in our corporal existence. We instinctively know that that which does not belong necessarily to the body’s essence, does indeed belong to its integrity. And we also sense that the latter exists for the sake of the former. Our limbs and higher senses stand in the service of the seat of our vital organs (trunk and head), which in turn enable those outlying capacities to expand and explore. Separation of the two spheres is always experienced as violent.

Next, in a somewhat different register, what about our bodily needs for food, clothing, shelter, fuel and transportation? The “essential” here would be for material goods to simply circulate among us, providing everyone with what they need, when they need it and in a measure that would allow others to also share equitably in the wealth. Utopian dreams of whatever stripe – fascist, communist, or even unbridled capitalist – offer wistful gazes at such a Shangri-La. However, adults among us will sigh and admit that history has shown, repeatedly, that we cannot keep those goods circulating over the long haul without some sort of currency, market system, shops, banks and even, regretfully, a degree of governmental control.

In the political order, too, the “essential” would be for us to live in harmony, arm-in-arm, doors unlocked, resolving all community questions through cheery referenda (with unanimous approval effortlessly forthcoming) – in short, a Pleasantville of easy, but superficial smiles. Again, we wrinkle our brow and admit that apart from a very few, short-lived communal experiments, we only get close to peace and prosperity through the agency of some variety of sovereign power, some degree of bureaucracy, and at least a few soldiers and policemen into the bargain. They may not be needed in the earthly paradises we dream of, but all the real paradises hitherto rehearsed on earth have swiftly turned into nightmares. The only successful strategy has proven to be the following: the minimization of predictable evils through checks and balances, separation of powers, judicial review, subsidiarity, term limits and other bridles on our easily misguided appetites. If we are to preserve any refreshing spontaneity in nature at all, the design of good institutions alone has shown the way.

I think the reader can see where I’m going with this. As our limbs and higher senses emerge from our embryonic organism, serve and protect it, and lead it on its more promising adventures; and as economic institutions emerge from our need for goods and services, and then, in turn, serve that need; and as political institutions emerge from our need for peace and order and then, in turn, attend to that need; why would the relationship between spirituality and religion be any different?

Both economic and political institutions, being living realities, grow; and what grows, tends also to overgrow, and will need periodic pruning and reform to stay true to its original purpose. The great religions all began with great spirituality, someone’s singular encounter with transcendent reality (I am leaving for another post the question of what part of spiritual reality that might be, and why religions are so different – see Filosofia da Religião), and this engendered a complex human reaction in the form of wisdom traditions and belief systems for the mind; moral guidelines for the will; and ritual and liturgy for our bodies. The institutions generated by an original spirituality will grow, and, like other institutions, at times overgrow. Thus the need for pruning and reform.

In summary, far from being something alien or opposed to religion, spirituality is precisely what religion is all about, and religion, at its best, is the natural outgrowth and prolongation of tested spirituality. Nothing else has proven capable of protecting and guiding it. Its institutions can be as bland and boring as financial transactions in economics, and congressional debates in political life, but without them, the goods stop flowing, public order breaks down, and the flame of spirituality soon blows out. Spirituality without religion may occasionally work for the few, but never for all; and even for those few, it will work only for a while, and sooner rather than later will lose its form. Alone, it will never build a civilization. And religion – for all of its excesses and corruptions – has not just been a prerequisite of civilization; it has been its only demonstrable cause.

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